Light on Shattered Water
"We'll be fine," Mai assured the captain.
The soldier looked uncertain. "Ma'am, we have our orders, and leaving you alone in there..." He gestured at the weather-stained tavern, the facade with the stuffed bird above the door bathed in the warmth of the setting sun. Wisps of clouds in the otherwise clear sky beyond the red-tiled roof reflected golden light.
"In there are my friends," she replied. "Nothing's going to happen."
"Ma'am. You can't be certain. And I was ordered..."
"And you know the authority his highness vested me," she growled.
The captain went rigid, then his ears laid back as he ducked his head. "Yes, Ma'am. We'll wait."
His tail was lashing as he went to rejoin his squad. Mai came over to where I was waiting. "No problems," she said.
"He seems to think there is," I observed, then looked at her curiously: "What did you mean, about your authority?"
She waved a shrug, "Time for that later, ah? Come on, you might be able to go all day without eating, but I'm hungry." She took a few steps, then looked back, "You're coming?"
I rolled my eyes, then hurried to catch up with her.
The reaction when we stepped inside was predictable. There were maybe twenty-five or thirty Rris at tables and booths around the room. Conversation around the tavern died, ripples of silence spreading around the room as they saw us, saw me. The crackling of the fire in the hearth was loud in the stillness, the smell of food mingling with the scent of a large number of Rris: not the most appealing aroma. I looked to Mai for her cue and saw her ears had gone down. I guess she hadn't expected such a reaction, but if she was going to take me to places like this, she'd better get used to it. It was brighter in there than it'd been the last time I'd visited: Light slanted in through the front windows, sunbeams visible in the smoky air.
"Maithris?" a voice ventured from the back of the room and I saw several Rris flinch at the sound. "Hai! Maithris!"
The Rris who'd called out was one of a group at a table back toward the fire. The caller's tablemates all looked at it as if they thought it were crazy.
"You remember Eserét," Maithris murmured to me. "Come along."
I stayed at her side as we threaded our way through the room, accompanied by the sound of furniture scraping on the floor as patrons shied away from me and the low murmur that spread in our wake. Rris all around stared openly, including those sitting with Eserét. Five of them. Of the Rris gathered at that table I only recognised Eserét, that one from the market with his dark left ear and gold ring threaded through it. The others were strangers, sitting with their food forgotten on the plates before them as they watched me.
One of them, wearing a tie-dyed tunic trimmed with what looked like hemp rope, looked at Eserét and twitched his ears my way: "That's what you were talking about?"
"Huhn, I told you," he snorted, staring as we approached. "Maithris, what're you doing here?"
She cocked her head, "Same thing you are, I'd expect. We thought we'd hunt down some good food. So, what sort of mood is Yischas in?"
"Hnnn," he looked down at his plate and the half-eaten meat there. "Hurried, I think."
Another Rris, a smoking corncob pipe in his hand, leaned forward: "Hai, Maithris. Decided to [something] with the rest of us lowly creatures, ah? What's the story behind your... friend there?"
"I'd have thought he'd have told you," she said, gesturing at Eserét.
"Didn't believe me," he said, toying with his mug. "Rockheads."
"Hai," another retorted. "You pickle your brain often enough. Half of everything you say exists only in your skull."
"That looks like it's in my skull?" He jerked a thumb with the claw extended in my direction. I frowned.
"Move over," Mai tapped the shoulder of the Rris sitting on the bench closest to us. The Rris snarled at her and she lightly cuffed its muzzle; "Shut it, Heschi. Just move along."
Plates rattled as the Rris did so and Mai sat, scooting along to leave the place at the end free and patted it with her hand, "Have a seat."
I did. Gingerly sitting and hearing wood creak. It made me feel less conspicuous than standing there, but I still felt eyes boring into my back. Background conversations were starting up again: hushed whispers washing the room in a low white noise. I couldn't help but wonder how many were talking about me, a thought that was disrupted when Mai's hand patted the right leg of my jeans. "I'd like to introduce all of you to Mikah. Don't be put off by his looks: he's almost a Rris inside."
"It talks?" one asked. "Eserét, you said it can talk."
"Yes, it can talk," I said. "And its name is Michael."
"That answers your question?" Mai asked the dumbfounded faces around the table.
"Told you," Eserét was saying. "Would you listen? No. Laugh, you did. Pinheads." Then he ripped a mouthful of meat off the haunch on the plate before him and chewed noisily and openmouthed.
"Mikah," Mai gestured at the staring faces, clockwise around the table starting with the masticating Rris opposite me. "Eserét you know. These are Tohechinai, Mesic, K'heseri, Heschi."
"Please to meet you," I said.
"Maithris," the one named Mesic said, "What are you doing with... this?"
"Showing him some of the highlights of our city. Don't really know why I brought him here..."
A hiss of exasperation: "You know what I mean."
I saw fingers curl, her claws extruding to hook into the wood of the tabletop. "He was ill. The Palace came to me for help tending him. Now, I'm helping him around, teaching him a bit."
"You're male, are you?" K'heseri said to me.
"Yes," I replied. "What about you?"
Eserét coughed. There were chitters and K'heseri looked surprised. "Is that a joke?"
Maithris sighed. "No joke. I suppose we should get this out of the way." Then she went around the table, starting with Eserét: "Male, male, female, female, male, female." The last was herself.
"You can't tell?" Eserét asked.
"Not very well," I admitted.
"Not teaching him well enough," K'heseri observed. "Must make your sex life awkward. Hai, the ones with the penises are males; those who don't have them, aren't. Does that help?"
Laughter chittered around the table. I couldn't tell if it was cruel or just amused.
"I think he's doing quite well," Mai retorted and I can't explain how much her defense meant to me. "It's just he has problems in the most unexpected areas."
Hmm, inflates my balloon, then punctures it just as efficiently.
Across the table, Tohechinai took a drag on his pipe and blew sweetly-scented smoke into the air, then asked, "What are you? Where're you from?"
"That's a long story," I said.
"I've got time."
I looked at Mai and she waved a shrug: "We've got a while. Anyway, it's an interesting tale. Mikah, I'll get you some food if you like. What's the dish today?"
"Stew," Mesic sighed. "The rolls are fresh though."
"Great. Rolls and stew good for you?"
"Fine," I said. "Any chance of a drink?"
"Sai, better than average," she smiled and got up, patting my shoulder on her way past.
Eserét leaned forward: "So, what's this story?"
"I come from a long way away..."
"I didn't think you lived next door," Heschi said and the others laughed.
"Hey, you want to hear this?" I asked.
"Apologies." He subsided and took a pull from his cup.
They listened while I told my story. I gave them the short version, editing a few bits and pieces. I didn't mention the accusations of murder that'd been leveled against me, the times I'd had to kill, nor the disparity between our cultures. There were a few interruptions, some questions. I was about halfway through when Mai returned with a tray of food. The place wasn't wealthy: the plates were rough lathed wood, grease from meals soaked into it. I touched the unfinished wood and suddenly realised how far above all this I was at the Palace with the bone china and fine cutlery and hot and cold running water. Even there I missed the luxuries of home, but compared with a place like this, I was living in the lap.
"Hai, you going to finish your story?" Eserét asked.
"Uh?" I looked up from my reverie. "Oh, yeah. Sorry." I broke off a piece of bread, dipped it in gravy and nibbled on that as I continued my tale. They listened while I tried to eat and talk at the same time, an exercise that wasn't entirely successful: my accent wasn't crystal clear to Rris at the best of times. It was when I finished that they started asking questions, mostly about where I came from. The explanations were difficult: these guys weren't the educated upper class. They were dock workers, weavers, shopkeepers. Granted, they were better educated than a human from a comparable period, but that didn't mean they had much of an idea of what their world was like. Of all of them only Mai and Tohechinai had any real knowledge of geography, the smoking Rris being the manager of a warehouse storing goods brought in on the lake network. My story that I 'just appeared' in their land confused them and I think I left them with the impression that my kind existed in some distant and unexplored corner of their land.
And when I told them what my occupation was, there was an outbreak of laughter, chittering like chipmunks on speed. "Ai, Eserét," Mesic chuckled, "you hear that? You've got competition."
Eserét retaliated with a piece of bread and a snort, "Him? Do I look worried?"
"Perhaps you should be," Mai put in. "He's not bad."
"Ah? As good as me?"
"Well, perhaps not. But I'm sure one day you'll catch up with him."
More laughter. Eserét's eyes narrowed and he growled, a low rumble that didn't do anything to deter the amusement.
"You're an artist?" I asked him, my interest roused.
"I thought I was," he growled.
"What do you work with? I mean, what material?"
"Paints," he said warily, as if he wasn't quite sure if he should be offering that answer.
"I've seen the paintings at the Palace. They are paints made with oil?"
"Ah," he gestured affirmative. "I suppose they would be. Expensive, but good to work with. You know of them?"
"Yes. A bit slow to dry, but the color is..." I fumbled for words, trying the one I thought meant 'deep', then looked at Mai, "Is that right?"
She smiled, "Good try. You said 'hithirchi'ch'." A usage of the term 'depth' that didn't make sense except when applied to something like a well or river.
"Oh." I frowned. "I meant the color is... stronger. I'm sorry, I'm still learning your language."
"Surprising you can talk at all," K'heseri observed.
"Hold," Eserét said, looking puzzled. "You said it was a 'bit slow to dry'. You know something faster?"
"A few paints work like oils, but dry much faster."
"A?" His eyes widened. "What's it called? How do you make it..."
"A special oil mix. I don't have the details, but I can find out..."
I guess I lost track of time. It didn't matter that he wasn't human, he was someone I had something in common with. For the first time in a long while I spent hours talking shop and I enjoyed it. Just chatting with no real pressure or demands. Around me conversations were starting up again, the sound of cutlery and laughter, the snarls of an argument riding above the background noise.
One of those rare times when I almost felt a part of the world around me. And later on when Mai and I once again stepped out into the night air, the three-quarter moon was past its apogee. I looked up at the stars and the wisps of cloud there and breathed deeply: smelling water and the faint taste of smoke.
A hand touched my shoulder: "You enjoyed yourself?" Mai asked.
I looked down at those amber eyes and smiled. "Yes. Very much."
I opened the doors.
I didn't know what was in there, but I could feel it. There was blackness in there as the rickety doors swung soundlessly open, the wood as pale and as bleached as bones. I walked, through marble halls where my footsteps echoed from walls, along endless corridors. Something was stalking me: hunting me. Dark shapes flittered across the edges of vision.
Heart tightening in my chest. Trying door after door. They opened onto more doors.
A glittering room of white and light where masks surrounded me, orbiting in stately grace. Human masquerades, a menagerie of fantastic creatures, cat faces... circling, catching at me, the light and shadow blending; positive and negative shifting until branches were waving against the black sky. A forest of bone-white trees, like living driftwood and in their depth lithe shapes flickered, a feeling of being hunted by something that lived in the corner of my fears.
Babbling water. Crystal water over dark stones. I touched the water, the reflection...
Amber eyes over a snarl that exploded from the darkness, teeth sinking deep, claws tearing and raking...
Echoes of my scream were still raw in my throat when the Rris I was fighting turned to a tangle of rumpled sheets. In the darkness I froze as reality seeped in past the terrors, then sagged back into the sweat-dampened cloth. I lay there, panting hard while knotted muscles twitched and sent jolts of pain through deep scars.
I don't know how long I lay there in a pile of twisted bedclothes, staring into the darkness. When finally I rolled over to stand, my legs were shaking so violently I only managed it on my second try.
Enough moonlight found its way in through the bathroom window, casting a blue light over the tiles. I fumbled the pitcher before managing to fill the bowl, then splashed handfuls onto my face. The water was cold, dribbling down through my beard to drip onto my bare chest and shoulders. I closed my eyes and leaned on the bench, opened them to look down into the bowl and see the ripples and the face staring back at me. I shuddered.
"Hi, Maithris," I said softly. I didn't have to turn around to know who it was. I heard the scarcely audible click of claws on the tiles: a step, then a hesitation.
"Bad dreams again," she said, a voice so low it was almost a growl.
I nodded vaguely, feeling completely wrung out. The movement behind me was more something I felt than heard, so I was expecting the touch on my arm. She was looking up at me, moonlight and shadow bringing out the contours of her face beneath the fur; her eyes dark pools of concern. "Mikah?"
Then I was hugging her, pressing my face against the fur of her head. A flinch and a small sound of surprise, then her arms went around me. A timeless moment; a moment of security and comfort that reminded me of when someone else had held me like that.
"Mikah?" A low voice rumbled. "Are you all right?"
"I..." I took a breath and pulled myself together, stepping away. She ducked her head slightly, watching me. "I'm fine. I didn't mean to... I'm sorry," I said, not able to meet her eyes.
She smiled a bit then. At least I think she did: it was difficult to tell in the gloom: "Don't be. Would you like me to stay tonight?"
And for a second I just stared: "What?"
"Should I stay? I thought you might sleep better if there was someone here with you."
I blinked, then looked away: an entirely innocent offer and I ended up the greater fool.
"Mikah?" She tipped her head quizzically.
"No. No, thank you." I smiled slightly. "I'll manage."
Mai was silent for a heartbeat, studying me. Then I saw her hand move, "If you're sure." She shifted and touched my arm, stroking the hairs gently before withdrawing. "If you need anything, ask the guards. They'll call me."
I just nodded. A whisper of padded feet and she was gone. For a while more I stood there staring at the patch of moonlight, then shivered violently and turned to trudge back to bed.
The evening sun was low in the sky and bright in my eyes as we left the mill. The light brought a touch of warmth against the cool breeze insinuating itself through the city streets.
It'd been a busy day. I'd been up and about and bound for the southern end of town before the sunlight hit the hills. A quiet ride, I spent it watching the city coming to life around me: peddlers and merchants plying their wares, the smell of fresh-baked goods from bakeries. As we crossed the Redmale bridge I could see boats putting out from the docks: a procession of hulls and sails bound downstream as the city's fishing fleet set out for the day.
When the carriage finally clattered to a halt, it was in a forecourt bustling with wagons and animals and Rris as bales of goods were loaded and unloaded. Chaeitch was already waiting for me, with his tawny fur freshly brushed and russet sigils dyed on his forearms. He was wearing a pair of green crushed-velvet breeches: expensive-looking and quite out of place there.
I was introduced to several Rris; individuals of some importance who drew themselves up and did their best to hide that nervousness their ears and tails betrayed. They were industrialists and merchants; Guild members with a vested interest in the mill there to see what they were paying for.
That was why I was there, why we were there. Rraerch was working to negotiate a prototype sales contract with the Textiles Guild, a blueprint for future deals with partners both in and out of Land-of-Water. I'd been through talks with Guild representatives before and they'd seen some of the improvements that could be made to their current equipment, but I'd never seen one of their factories. I can't say I was very familiar with what went on in one of their factories, so it was felt that I should have a guided tour of the plant they were looking at upgrading.
The place was big, and busy. From the loading dock where heavy bales were Rris-handled to and from storerooms, to the offices: small, dark areas where a half-dozen clerks looked up from their low desks as I entered. One bolted out the other door, the abacus it'd been working with rattling to the floor. Behind me a couple of the guild representatives muttered something: I looked at Chaeitch who fluffed his fur and didn't meet my eyes while we looked through that place, at the archaic and chaotic filing system, the columns of tight and illegible figures in the heavy ledgers.
From there it was down to the factory floor. The main floor was in a brick building, a single open space bigger than it'd looked from the outside: the size of a basketball court, with cast-iron columns supporting a tarred wooden roof. A number of high mullioned windows would have provided better light if they'd been cleaner, but they let in enough to make out the looms: a bewildering matrix of machinery, wooden frames and threads, spinning belts and drive shafts that filled the floor. Furry bodies moved amongst it as Rris workers tended the machinery. No clothing, I noticed; I guessed things got pretty hot in there. And audible under everything else, a dull pulse below the cacophony of clattering of the machinery and sound of Rris voices, was the steady dull thumping of steam engines somewhere else in the facility.
A foreman... woman, person, whatever... showed us around. The machinery looked complex, but what it actually did was simple enough: the looms were two-harness ones running plain weave cloth. Two sets of warp threads alternately rising and falling while shuttles ratcheted between them; a device something like an oversized comb swung down between warp threads, compacting the weave, then the cycle started over. The Rris attendants working among the machinery kept their tails clipped to their legs, lest a careless moment cost them at best an indignity, at worst a painful loss. They dashed here and there, replacing exhausted supplies of thread for shuttles, oiling machinery. Quite often machines were shut down completely to allow workers to climb among the equipment to repair snapped threads or jammed machinery. Hard and dangerous work. I kept my distance: the last thing I needed was to startle someone into making a fatal mistake.
I followed the foreman's explanation of the process as best as I could, but still Chaeitch had to clarify some points. Usually the problem was simply technical terms I didn't understand due to my limited vocabulary, but there were times - with the background noise and the speed at which the Rris spoke - when I just couldn't make out the words. Still, the demonstration showed me just what the mill had and let me better see how improvements might be made. For instance the machines had to be halted whenever a shuttle broke a thread or needed respooling which was surprisingly often. Early looms back home did that automatically and on the fly. I had pictures of those looms, but not detailed schematics.
The engines that powered the factory were housed in an adjoining building: a squat construction of new brick, already stained by the soot falling from the chimney. Inside, the atmosphere was hot, humid and filled with steam and the hiss and thump of the engines: a pair of wood-fired boilers powered the older model steam engines, seemingly filling the room with spinning wheels and shafts. They'd been lovingly tended; every rivet polished to a coppery sheen, every iron face blacked until light just fell into them. Still, they hissed and leaked steam that saturated the air and dampened my clothes and Rris fur.
What they wanted done was going to be expensive and would require a lot of work. Designing prototypes, testing, refining, downtime for the factory while the new equipment was installed... well, the sun was low in the sky when we stepped out onto the front steps.
"I think they're almost used to you," Chaeitch smiled into the light, his fingers busy tapping weed into his corncob pipe.
"Hmm," I nodded noncommittally, waiting for him. "Yes. You could tell they were almost ready to ask me home to meet their daughters."
Chaeitch chittered and fumbled in his belt pouch for his flint and steel lighter, "That might be going a few steps over the edge." I watched as his furry hands struck sparks into the tinder in his pipe. He blew gently, then took the stem between his teeth and puffed on the pipe as he put the lighter away. Quite a juggling act just to light a pipe.
"Ai," the Rris took his pipe out and gestured with it toward the carriages, "And speaking of daughters..."
I looked: the Rris sitting in the open doorway of the carriage stirred, standing and watching us with head cocked and a smile on her face. Maithris. I hadn't expected to see her. "Your lady companion," Chaeitch grinned, letting his tongue loll in an expression I couldn't construe as anything but a leer.
"And you can stop that," I growled. "She's just a friend."
"Ah," He affected an insufferably knowledgeable expression, took a drag on his pipe and blew a cloud of sweetish smoke. "Of course she is."
I just sighed and shook my head.
He chittered and lightly slapped my arm, "You go and enjoy yourself tonight. I'll see you tomorrow." A flip of hand in farewell and he set off toward his ride. I ran over a list of choice retorts in my mind, decided to let it go.
"What was that about?" Maithris asked.
"Oh, nothing much. His idea of a joke," I shrugged. "Anyway, what are you doing here? I wasn't expecting to see you."
"I had some time in my cup, so I thought I'd come by." She looked me up and down, eyeing my damp clothes, "And how was your day?"
I plucked at my shirt, "Oh, about normal. Whatever that means these days."
She laughed, a chitter that wrinkled the fur of her face. "Ah, changing times we live in."
Too true. As the carriage clattered out into the busy street I leaned back and watched the crowds passing by outside. The streets were narrower in this part of the town, the buildings a bit more run-down. As we rode Mai pointed out sites of interest, named the streets and the squares as we passed through them. I was starting to get an idea of how Shattered Water was laid out, in a series of intersecting radial patterns: like the ripples rain would cause across the surface of a pond. Still, there were a maze of streets, alleys, and avenues throughout the city, confusing enough that I almost didn't notice when we diverted from the route back to the Palace.
"Something I thought you'd like to see," Maithris said.
"Ah, patience," she smiled and waved a finger. "Patience, you'll see."
I can't say I was that comfortable with surprises. Enough had happened to me that I'd become wary around Rris; perhaps a bit paranoid. Maithris... I trusted her, but I still felt a knot of uncertainty as she led me into the unknown. I think she knew. I don't know how... smelled my unease perhaps. An inhuman hand touched my leg, stroked my jeans: "It's all right. I think you'll enjoy it."
"Where are we going?"
She just patted my leg again and smiled.
We crossed the river at the Hands and Sky bridge then followed a convoluted road uphill between buildings that arched out over the street, leaning so much that the upper floors almost touched. The street was paved in places - a harsh rattling beneath the wheels - whilst in others it was simply packed dirt. An old part of the city, built inside the old walls in a time when there hadn't been a lot of space.
Sunlight was brushing the roofs of the buildings around us when we halted.
"Come on," Mai urged me as she threw the door open and was gone. I followed.
The carriage had stopped by the ruins of an old wall and archway. The wall had been imposing in its heyday and what was left was still impressive: the uneven parapet was high over my head, the granite blocks patched with lichen and scarred by Rris script chiseled into it. Graffiti? Maithris hooked claws into my sleeve and tugged me through the arch, "Come on."
And when I saw what lay through the other side of the archway I stopped in surprise. "There?"
It was a castle. Or the remains of one. I suppose at one stage the hilltop had been the bailey and keep of a fortified castle, now only part of the inner keep remained at the center of a small hilltop park: a pair of towers and part of a hall, one wall crumbled away to reveal broken floors and the skeletons of rafters where roof tiles had gone. It wasn't recent; piles of rubble were overgrown with grass and weeds, and if there'd been any larger blocks of masonry, they'd long since been carted off as building material. The whole place was probably being pilfered a piece at a time by locals who needed bits and pieces for their own purposes. Sad in a way.
And Maithris kept us moving, across the grass and into the ruins. Colder in the shadows, enough to make me shiver. Gravel crunched under my boots as we moved, myself following the slightly paler shadow that was Mai through the twilight, through a doorway into blackness.
"Mai? I can't see."
"Rot. I forgot. Here, hold me."
And I flinched wildly when in the darkness a hand took mine. In the blackness the touch was even more alien than her appearance: inhuman fur and flesh and muscles wrapped around inhuman bones. A tug urging me further into the dark and I balked.
"Mikah?" She tugged at my hand, hesitated. "It's all right."
I swallowed, then nodded. "I... trust you."
There was a moment's silence in the blackness, then a feeling of something moving toward my face just before soft fur brushed against my cheek. "Come on," Maithris murmured.
So she led me through the blackness so thick I could barely see my hand in front of my face, up a winding stone staircase until light appeared around a corner. We emerged on a rampart circling the tower. Off to the left the crenellated parapet was in ruins and flagstones were missing, but the part we were standing on seemed sound enough. Why'd she brought me up there? Maithris didn't say anything, just stepped back and ducked her head slightly while still watching me. I felt like she was expecting something of me.
Four floors up, looking south over the town below where the last sunlight was stroking the rooftops. A few steps took me to the west face where I stopped, and understood.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Too true: I don't feel any description could do justice to that sight spread out below me that evening. Shattered Water was a jagged panorama of rooflines and chimneys stretching away to the lake, the setting sun washing over the city and setting tiled roofs to glowing, turning the lake to a single gold mirror. Beyond that, forested hills gently rolled away to where a swollen red sun was melting into the distant horizon. The sky around the sinking orb was a red canvass slashed with yellows and ochres as dying light prismed through wisps of high cloud. Directly overhead a few stray clouds were painted by the fading sun, turned to wisps of pink against a dark background.
For several minutes I watched, scarcely noticing when Maithris stepped up beside me. "Beautiful," I murmured.
"I've always thought so," she said, watching me. She ducked her head when I turned her way and smiled slightly. "It's an old place. I think this is why it's still standing."
"What is it?"
"The old keep," she said and stepped up to the parapet to lean against worn stone as she looked out over the city and surrounds; a surreal silhouette limned in evening light. "Shattered Water has always been here," she said eventually. "It was small. In the earliest days it was just a small settlement: a fishing town, trading post, something of that ilk. Then the trade routes [something], the town's position brought prosperity and it grew. Through the times there's been peace and prosperity and there's been fighting, several wars, and the keep and walls were built around the town. You can see where the old wall ran, those old towers there and over there. That was a long time ago.
"Since, there has been more fighting, more years passing. The town continued to grow. The guns came and the walls weren't protection anymore and the city spread beyond them. The Peace was made over half a hundred years ago. Since then there have been some border skirmishes, but most of the fighting has been over the conference table with money and trade."
For a while longer she talked. The sun sank as she pointed out spots of interest, naming names, providing snippets of information about various corners. She didn't know the exact history of the city, but she knew stories and those she related, tales about how a street was named, why there were Rris skulls in the memorial stones in Backbiter square. An old city. I knew people back home who considered a 400 year colonial homestead old; this place was older by an order of magnitude. There were roof tiles there that were old when Abraham Lincoln was in diapers. There was that air to the place, a feeling of age.
I stood there on that ancient fortress as the light faded over Shattered Water, a person I was coming to call friend at my side. The sun was gone, the glow on the horizon dying as the stars came out. Out there, a lone cloud flashed a final time before the light was gone and moonlight, the faint glimmers of lights from the city below, was all there were. A cool breeze crossed the ramparts, raising hairs where it touched my bare skin and an inhuman hand touched my arm. "Mikah? You're cold?"
I looked at that alien silhouette: moonlight on fur and black shadow. "A bit," I said.
"Maybe we should head back."
"A. I think that might be best."
She stayed close as she guided me through the darkness. I could feel warmth through her fur every time I bumped against her, quite welcome after the cold, and I have to confess I bumped against her quite a lot in that blackness. "Hai, you're doing that deliberately," her voice chittered.
"No," I protested. "You just seem to be there..."
"Just hold my hand... Hai! That's my tail."
"Oh, sorry. It all looks the same. Ah! Claws, Mai!"
"Sorry, but it all looks the same..."
When we emerged from the darkness into moonlight we were engaged in a gentle tug-of-war over her tail, two kinds of laughter loud amongst the stillness of the ruins. And when the carriage door had closed and we jolted into motion I leaned back and said to the shadows, "Thank you."
"Any time," I couldn't see her expression - the only light was the inconstant moonlight filtering through the windows, crossing her legs but leaving her face in shadow. "You enjoyed it?"
I nodded, "It was a sight worth seeing."
"Perhaps we could do it again some time."
"I'd like that," I said. The truth; I'd enjoyed myself.
She leaned forward, elbows on knees and her head in the wan moonlight as she smiled. "A promise then."
The next few days were hard grind. I spent a lot of time with Chaeitch, a majority of which was taken up with the Textile Guild contract. The first things to go in were the engines, a job that required a lot of measuring and development of a gear train to match their output to the belts and shafts that drove the looms. That wasn't really a problem: the steam engines were smaller than the older models so they'd fit into the engine room with plenty of space to spare. That was the time he started developing an interest in electrical power. When the alternative is handling a half-ton spinning wood and metal beam, a system where power can be transferred by wire comes to look damn attractive.
When it came to modifying the looms, that was different.
I pulled up everything I could find on the laptop pertaining to weaving, textiles, looms and spinning. There wasn't as much as I'd been hoping, but it was enough to give us some tips. Chaeitch's first major triumph was coming up with an auto-loading shuttle. If the thread ran out or broke, the shuttle would automatically take up a new one on the fly, saving time and fingers.
I have to say that now, sitting in the warmth of the sunlight as I look back and write this journal, it might seem that all this was so easy. Just think it up and build it. I have to say from experience it wasn't: there was a lot of time, mistakes, effort and swearing expended every day. My laptop wasn't an oracle that could provide every answer. Hell, I was a graphics specialist: I had all kinds of clip-art archived, I had pictures of looms, but I didn't have technical breakdowns of everything. There's only so much you can learn by looking at a picture. For everything we got working, there was a small pile of things that became so much scrap.
Still, Chaeitch could work miracles with what I could give him: always coming up with elegant solutions to niggly little problems. While I could offer the raw materials, it was the technically-inclined Rris such as himself who polished and shaped that into something that worked. That involved hard work, evenings returning to my quarters covered in dirt and dust and the smell of hot metal. The days I had off couldn't have been more welcome.
It was one of those mornings when there was a moment of panic, then the realisation that I didn't have to be up before the sun sank in. The next couple of hours were spent in a blissful stupor, just dozing on the edge of wakefulness, chasing after dreams of home and Jackie. In fact when I felt someone settle on edge of the bed and fingers gently stroked my face, that was the name I mumbled.
"No," a much gruffer voice replied in a language Jackie had never spoken. "I'm afraid not."
I flinched, then rolled onto my back and blinked sleepily up at Maithris. "Oh. Good morning."
"Yes, it was," she smiled back.
An easy morning. The sky overhead was a crystal blue, deep enough that you could believe it was solid enough to shatter. Away on the horizon the heavens were darker; ranks of cumulonimbus rising like dark mountains, but those were concerns of the future. I spent the present enjoying the day.
Once again Maithris and I took the carriage out into the town. We left it just before the Redmale Bridge and crossed the river on foot, watching a couple of boats passing beneath the spans. A sight; Mai in her coarse green breeches and soft leather vest leaning on the balustrade with the city waterfront and ships as a backdrop.
The market was there, as it always was: an everchanging maze of tents and wagons and bustling Rris. Mai stayed close by my side as we explored the stalls and tried to ignore the stares and comments. I had some cash by then, a few small silver coins that felt uncomfortably heavy in my wallet, so as we explored we brought some odds and ends; food: fresh-baked scones with cheese and meat in them. Mai spent some time admiring a tiny decorative ear clip: a little sprig of leaves made from copper. I made a gift of it for her and that's a bittersweet memory: the expression on her face when I pressed the trinket into her palm.
Stalls of handcrafts, tools, rugs and textiles, household goods, small articles of furniture. Rris staring at me as we wandered through the isles, just browsing. Something that made an impression was the sight of Rris - upper class merchants maybe - wearing very familiar pants: a heavy blue material reinforced with rivets and a dark belt. Okay, so there were a few differences in the cut around the ankles, but they were unmistakably copies of my own. I returned the stares they gave me, just as surprised as they were.
"They're different," Mai said by way of explanation. "That's the appeal." She shrugged then and smiled, "And I've heard they're quite comfortable, if a little harsh on the fur."
I wondered if I was earning royalties from those. I'd started to lose track.
As the long summer day passed we wandered the market and the surrounding environs. We spent some time at a small park, sitting on the grass under the spreading branches of an elderly oak and watching the city passing by. Nearby, a group of young cubs clustered, watching me with all the fascination a child might give a circus. When I beckoned to them they scattered like birds, chittering and shouting. I watched them, feeling slightly stung.
"Don't worry," Mai said. "They just need to get to know you."
Later, as the shadows grew longer and the clouds gathered in the reunion over the lake, we made our way back to the waterfront and the warmth of the tavern there. It was a watering hole that was coming to be familiar. In the half-dozen times I'd patronised the place I'd come to know the smoke and dimness and smells and even a few of the Rris who frequented the tavern. That evening Tohechinai and Mesic were sitting at their customary table, talking over their drinks and watching another Rris settled over by the fire strumming away on an instrument that resembled a wooden banjo. It produced an unusual sound: more abrupt than a guitar, higher pitched. And the music was similar to the stuff I'd heard at the official functions at the Palace, an eerie sound that tapered off into discordant twangs when the minstrel noticed me and stared, kept staring as Maithris and I joined her friends at the table. Someone shouted and the musician shuddered violently, then tried to pick up the strands of the song where they'd fallen.
Tohechinai drank and added to the general atmosphere of the place with drags on his pipe; Mesic still had her reservations about me, but she was more friendly than that first time we'd met. So, we talked, passing the time as the light outside the windows faded and the halflight faded to a muggy, firelit gloom. Eventually a cub came around with a taper, lighting small oil lamps that at least gave me enough light to see by. As the evening went on, the rest of Mai's friends drifted in for their eveningmeal. The dish of the day was a heavy black bread, slabs of roast meat and potatoes buried under a gravy with the consistency of silly putty. It tasted better than it looked.
And Mai's friends didn't ignore me as they ate and talked, joking and laughing. The dim light and warmth, the smell of food and wood smoke closed around in a cosy gloom that reminded me of some my favorite coffee houses back home, save that my companions could never be mistaken for human. In that half-light they became something else, a sight that sent chills skittering down my spine when I looked up to it: a shifting tablau of figures limned by flickering orange lamps and shadows, transformed into things one might better expect to find on the cornices of a gothic cathedral. Mesmerizing in its grotesqueness.
A claw hooked my leg, jerking my attention from that scene down to Mai's shimmering eyes: "Mikah?" she murmured, below the background chatter. "Something wrong?"
"Uh..." I blinked, turned back to my meal. "No. Just..." I smiled at her then, "Have you ever wondered if what you saw was what everyone else saw?"
For a second her expression was one I couldn't fathom, then she chittered and her hand slapped my leg, "This isn't something you're used to, is it?"
I waggled my hand: "The company's different."
"I imagine it is." She took a sip from her drink, then cocked her head. "Did you do this where you came from? I mean, your kind: you have common meeting places?"
"Like this?" I looked around. "We have similar places."
"A?" Mesic interjected from across the other side of the table, leaning forward as she eavesdropped. "A room full of things like you. Now, that would be a sight to bring nightmares."
The chitters of laughter that brought were cut off by Mai's snarl. Her muzzle was distorted in anger as she leaned over, "Mesic, perhaps you could choose your words more carefully."
A startled Mesic tipped her head back, "Hai, it was a joke."
And Maithris hissed, "You think..."
"Mai," I touched her arm. "It's all right." She looked at me, wrinkles up the bridge of her muzzle from her bared teeth. "It's all right," I repeated.
She looked back at Mesic and slowly the distortions of fury smoothed out, "I'm sorry, I just don't like seeing my friends insulted."
"No," I said, smiling gently. "It wasn't an insult. If I were to point out she really doesn't smell that bad for such a fat female, now that would be an insult."
"I..." Mesic started to say, then cut off and frowned. "What? Why you..."
The laughter from around the table drowned her out. A chittering Tohechinai slapped her arm, and she subsided into grumbling complaints, eyeing me dangerously. It was something I couldn't afford: a Rris with an active dislike of me. The next time it was her turn to buy a round I made an effort to throw some oil on troubled waters by shouting her. I think it helped; at least she started talking to me again.
End Light on Shattered Water 25